By Imam Wali:
Every development project in a society comes with some positive and negative results.
Some construction workers working on road projects across the country have been accused of perpetrating gender-based violence (GBV) and child exploitation.
They leave scars of their unwanted acts in community members.
One example is Iponga Village in Karonga District where girls claim they are victims of sexual exploitation at the hands of road construction workers who lure them with money.
A 14-year-old girl who experienced sexual abuse in the lakeshore district states that more girls fall into the traps of ‘richer’ men in a bid to partly deal with their parents’ poverty.
Yet, still, the road, whose construction started in late 2017, has brought legitimate economic opportunities to locals employed as casual and professional labourers. It has also brought social problems.
With tears welling up in her eyes, the 14-year-old girl narrated her ordeal, which resulted in the birth of a baby who has never seen her biological father. It is likely that the child will permanently live with one parent, robbed of all things that fathers provide.
To the girl, the pregnancy also resulted in her dropping out of school and puncturing her dream of becoming a nurse, in the process.
“I was in a relationship with one of the workers who promised to marry me but things turned sour soon after he got me pregnant as he started acting strange. The next thing I heard was the relocation of their camp from our village to another area,” she narrated.
She added that, after the incident, she neither received any counselling or support from anybody to help her come to terms with what had happened to her.
Senior Chief Mwakaboko of Karonga District reckons to have received several complaints from subjects along the tarmac road when it was being constructed.
“The road construction project was very good to our community because that meant our area was developing but it has left scars which we are failing to erase. Many of our girls were abused and exploited,” he said.
The traditional leader wished those who defiled girls in his area were identified so that they can face the long arm of the law to deter would-be offenders who took advantage of the community’s literacy levels.
Now, with a few months having elapsed after completion, the biggest worry and fear among community members is the aftertaste of cases of GBV, child exploitation and child abuse that, not so long ago, had left many traumatised.
But the contractor, Zhejiang Communication Construction Company, engaged the Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls (Cewag) to develop training materials for contractor’s staff and community members and raise awareness on the vices.
According to Chief Mwakaboko, community are now safer since the awareness has yielded positive results unlike before when many girls were falling pregnant.
“The fear that we had is now gone because, from the time Cewag started raising awareness on GBV and child exploitation, no abuse case has been reported. If there were some activities going on, then they were happening secretly.
“This is the kind of development that we pray for. Cewag made us understand our rights,” the chief said.
A community member in the area, Emmanuel Mkandawire, remarked that the trainings enlightened them to have full responsibility over their children, a thing which was a major concern in the past.
“What we have learnt is being put to use now and many more years to come. Every parent and guardian has been told to safeguard and protect his or her child. Women should resist violence from men and men should not abuse their spouses. Families need to live in peace and harmony,” Mkandawire narrated.
Cewag Executive Director, Beatrice Mateyo, says noticing the challenges that some girls went through and with the likelihood of history repeating itself, her organisation intensified efforts to end malpractices have ruined the future of young girls.
“The story of the 14-year-old girl is very shocking and, when we were told, we thought it was just hearsay. Such kind of violence has no room in our society. Therefore, coming up with several interventions is timely to addressing such issues,” Mateyo says.
And Mateyo believes that concerted efforts by stakeholders can address such cares not only in Karonga District but across the country.
Awareness, the activist says, is key to ensuring that Malawians, particularly those in rural areas, appreciate their rights and determine if such rights are being abused.